08 September 2008

The Plot Against America - Philip Roth


Imagine if you will - the year is 1940. Hitler has already overun Poland and Czecolslovakia (believe it or not, I spelt that correctly on the first try). The British have entered the war. The French have entered the war - and quickly exited the war. Meanwhile, in America, isolationists are arguing to keep America out of "Europe's" war. Timely enough, there is a general election slated for November of 1940. The Democratic candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, has been in office for 8 years and has come off the greatest political victory in US history by carrying 46 of the 48 states (damn you Vermont and Maine). At the Republican national convention, there is a standoff between a number of candidate until another icon of American heroism - one Charles A. Lindbergh - steps onto the convention floor. And the rest, as they say, is alternate history.

Roth has portrayed a "what if" scenario, by having Lindbergh as the Republican candidate of 1940 election - in reality it was New York businessman Wendell Willkie. In Roth's alternate retelling of history Lindbergh, who was in fact staunchly against the US' involvement in the war, becomes the President of the US by inspiring the populace and by portraying FDR as a warmonger. In Lindbergh's US, the nation does not go to war, as Lindbergh makes a secret pact with Hitler. However, as a part of this pact, the Jewish people of America go through an frightening escalation of controls, as anti-semitism reaches a zenith heretofore not seen in America.

I had expected more of an action novel, but what I got was a political novel. The storyline follows the Roth family - in a sense it is autobiographical as Roth's alternate history reflects the all too real anti-semitism that he faced growing up. The story itself is wonderfully constructed and delivered, as you would expect from such a decorated novelist. More interesting however are the questions it poses. If America had not entered WWII, how would it have turned out? Could Hitler have really succeeded, in not only conquering Europe but in successively implementing in nightmarish Final Solution; a plan whereby he hoped to rid the world of the Jewish people. It also begs the question, how does it feel to be an outsider in one's own country? What does it feel like to be discriminated against? To have all of one's possessions taken by the very country you have come to believe in? When will you stand up and say enough is enough, when it is the government that is persecuted you? Roth renders these fears all too tangibly, through the eyes of a young Jewish child, whose only desire to increase his stamp collection.

My main criticism is that the novel has a somewhat Hollywood approach, in that Roth seems to have loss the ability to end the damn thing - a bit long in the tooth, so to speak. By the end - in which Roth delivers a rather astute plot twist - the reader is left fatigued by the whole production, and, rather than appearing clever, it seems a bit cartoonish.